One of the books I’ve had on my shelves for a very long time – since soon after it was published in 1973 – is is ‘Clarence John Laughlin: The Personal Eye‘, a catalogue for the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition and a double issue of Aperture, Volume 17, Numbers 3 & 4, also published ‘as a book for general distribution’.
I don’t think its distribution in the UK would have been very wide, but like many US photographic publications of the time it would have been available at the Creative Camera bookshop in Doughty St and doubtless advertised in the magazine.
For those without a copy on their bookshelves, you can get a good idea of Lauglin’s thinking from ‘First Principles of the Third World of Photography – THE WORLD BEYOND DOCUMENTATION AND PURISM ONE – TEXT AND IMAGES BY CLARENCE JOHN LAUGHLIN’ on Carnival of Dogs. His 12 point manifesto there begins “In Photography, as in all arts, the quality of the human imagination is the only thing that counts – technique, and technical proficiency, mean nothing in themselves” and ends “The limitations of photography are nothing more than the limitations of photographers themselves.”
Much of Laughlin’s work is now in the Historic New Orleans Collection, where you can view and zoom into many of his pictures, so many indeed that it is hard to know where to start. But it is worth paging through the many pages of thumbnails and picking some to look at.
Although in the end I learnt that my own creative interests were in purism and documentation, in my early years in photography work such as Laughlin’s made a strong impression on me, and I’m rather surprised that although I wrote about him and other photographers who might be considered to follow in his footsteps such as Arthur Tress in another place, this is the first time in several thousand posts I appear to have mentioned him here.
Laughlin’s work was brought to my mind by two posts Clarence John Laughlin: In Memoriam on Photocritic International by A D Coleman, who wrote about Laughlin in his 1977 critical survey The Grotesque in Photography.
The first piece takes its sub-title Prophet without Honor from the subtitle of the Laughlin biography, Clarence John Laughlin: Prophet without Honor by A. J. Meek, professor emeritus of art at Louisiana State University (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), and one of two stories in it recounts Coleman’s meeting with Laughlin around 1975 when the photographer showed his of work to collector Sam Wagstaff. He set out a strict set of conditions about what he expected anyone who bought his pictures must do – and after looking through the work, Wagstaff rejected the idea that a photographer should have any rights over their pictures after they had been sold.
Over the ages, artists have almost always had an uneasy relationship with those who have provided them with a living, but it is only in relatively recent times that photography has succumbed so entirely to patronage by individuals and corporations. Most of the early photographers were themselves wealthy and others have maintained some sort of independence based on various commercial practices and around the reproducibility of the medium.
The second piece, subtitled Lament for the Walking Wounded, is an article published by Coleman in his “Light Readings” column in the December 1977 issue of the magazine Camera 35, together with a postscript.
Published at the time without names, it recounted the speech by Hilton Kramer, then chief art critic for The New York Times, at a New York City national meeting of the Society for Photographic Education, in which Kramer held Laughlin up to ridicule not for his photography, but making tasteless jokes about his eccentric nature. Coleman himself felt ashamed after the event at having joined in the whole-heated laughter at a man he describes as on of “the walking wounded of photography” who have suffered from their dedication to the medium and “never got their due and are beginning to realize that they may never get it.”
Though relating events now around 40 years in the past, these are stories which are still relevant, perhaps even more relevant, today.